In interview with ‘Ghiras’ Head of UNICEF Office in Qatar: Over 2.8 million Syrian children missing out on their education

   “Over 2.8 million Syrian children missing out on their education with little prospects for a better future. These are the children that need the most support,” said Mr. Anthony MacDonald, Head of Office, UNICEF, Qatar during an interview conducted by Qatar Charity’s ‘Ghiras.’ magazine. The full interview is below:  Firstly, we would like to use this opportunity to express our deepest appreciation for Qatar Charity`s global strategic partnership with UNICEF and acknowledge that by joining forces, we have been able to work together to support vulnerable children around the world. We would like to acknowledge Qatar Charity`s specifically generous support to UNICEF in Syria and Jordan this year. We are looking forward to continuing to expand our cooperation in Turkey to support Syrian refugee children and families. Q: Several Middle East countries like Yemen and Syria are going through continuous crises, affecting children badly in many ways. What is the extent of the damage the children have suffered there, especially as these crises have been going on for a decade? A: The protracted conflicts in many countries around the region have a compound impact on children and a childhood beyond any words. Children are being deprived of their basic rights, including living in safety, accessing education, receiving health services, and grow and reach their full potential.  In Syria, almost 10 years of war has left four in five children from Syria in need of humanitarian assistance, including the very basics like health, warm clothes, education, and food. But above all, it left children in need of protection and safety.  The conflict in Syria has caused the largest ongoing displacement crisis in recent history. People fled inside Syria, across its borders and beyond.  Over 5 million children have been displaced inside Syria or neighboring countries (2.6 million children inside Syria and 2.5 million children in neighboring countries). Entire families have had to flee violence leaving behind all of their belongings – some multiple times.  Nearly 6 million children know nothing but war, as nearly 4.8 million children in Syria were born into the war, and more than 1 million were born as refugees.  Currently, families in Syria are resorting to extreme survival measures as the price of essential food items have risen 20 times since the war began. Families in neighboring countries are facing deteriorating economic situations and dwindling funding available to respond to their needs.  Over 2.8 million Syrian children missing out on their education with few prospects for a better future. These are the children that need the most support.  Over 2 million children - over one-third of Syria’s child population -inside Syria are out of school, and 800,000 child refugees in neighboring countries are still missing out on their education. Children in Yemen are already struggling to survive in the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.  After five years of conflict, around four in five children – 12.3 million – are in desperate need of aid. Tens of thousands of children have died, both as a direct result of the fighting and indirect causes like disease and malnutrition. More than 1.7 million children have been forced to flee their homes and live in camps or improvised settings in other parts of Yemen.  Two million children in Yemen are out of school. Now schools have been closed around the country in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, an additional 5.8 million children are out of education. Most public-school teachers have not been paid in more than three years. At least 2,000 schools – one out of 16,000 overall - are unfit for use because of the conflict – either destroyed, used for military purposes, or taken over as a shelter for displaced people. With the arrival of COVID-19, the health systems in countries like Syria and Yemen were already strained and striving to cope. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, only around half of Yemen's health facilities were operational, and those that were running faced severe shortages in medicine, equipment, and staff. Inside Syria, half of all health care facilities were partially functioning or were not functioning at all. The impacts of COVID-19 on families' health systems and livelihood due to the deteriorating economic situation is further exacerbating the suffering of children in these countries.  Q: In general, the coronavirus has affected children's education worldwide, but it has affected the children of developing countries more severely. What are the main risks, and how can they be minimized? A: During the lockdowns imposed early on to curb the spread of the virus, the education of 110 million children and young people have been disrupted in all countries around the Middle East and North Africa region. This disruption in education could directly result in setting back children’s learning, and this will translate into losses across the economies and societies for years to come.  UNICEF data reviled that two in five children in the MENA region (38 million children) did not have access to remote learning during school closures in the time of COVID-19 pandemic. In general, alternative options to learning offered during COVD19 did not reach all children, especially due to disparities, including access to devices and internet coverage. This is worrying as children in many countries around the region were not receiving a quality education to begin with. In many countries, schools are not equipping children with the necessary basic reading, writing, and math skills. Six out of 10 children in the region cannot read or understand a simple age-appropriate text at age 10. It should also be noted that 14 million school-aged children were already out-of-school before the COVID-19 pandemic, many because of wars and armed conflicts. Once a decision to reopen schools is taken on the national level, the safe reopening of schools following hygiene protocols must be prioritized. This includes physical distancing, promoting regular and thorough handwashing, good respiratory hygiene, keeping facilities clean and hygienic, using protective equipment including masks based on a national protocol, and monitoring student and staff health while maintaining regular contact with local health authorities. Moreover, it is essential to provide children with opportunities to get the chance to catch up on what they missed out on during lockdown so they do not fall further behind. Shortly, there should be real investments made to bridge the digital divide to increase and improve children’s access across the region to remote learning tools, including TV, radio, and online platforms. It is also important to secure additional financing and prioritize resources for the education sector as public budgets focus on other priories. And above all, teaches should be provided with support, which is key to keeping children engaged in the classroom or at home. Q: What are the UNICEF efforts to provide educational opportunities for children and reduce school dropout, especially in crisis-hit areas? A: Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF supported remote learning in all MENA countries and directly reached nearly four million children as part of continuous education. UNICEF helped governments and partners produce and disseminate e-learning modules and educational broadcast materials for radio, TV, and online platforms, as well as guidance for parents in supporting learning and stimulating activities for their children at home.  As schools were starting to reopen, UNICEF MENA launched the “Ready to Come Back: A Teacher Preparedness Training Package” to prepare teachers for teaching and learning in the time of COVID.   UNICEF also continues to support children continue education in crisis-hit countries: In Syria, UNICEF, with its partners, support children and families through school rehabilitation, teachers training, curriculum b (a special program for children who have missed out on school in which children complete two school years in one to catch up with their peers) and self-learning programs, education bursaries for children coming from hard-to-reach areas for national exams, remedial classes, supplies including school bags, learning materials, recreational materials and stationery, early childhood education, and pre-fabricated classrooms.  Nearly 5 a million children inside Syria and in neighboring countries have access to learning against all odds, and thanks to the efforts of teachers, education personnel and partners on the ground – and with generous support from donors. In Yemen, UNICEF provided nearly 400,000 children with individual learning materials, and nearly 45,000 children with access to formal and non-formal education, including early learning. Moreover, UNICEF and its donors are committed to providing temporary and partial relief for more than 114,000 affected teachers and school-based staff by providing incentives to enable them to attend school.   Q: Extending psychological support is one of the projects implemented by UNICEF. What is the importance of this aspect, especially in crisis-stricken areas and in light of the coronavirus pandemic? A: The COVID-19 pandemic has had a compound impact on children’s wellbeing and mental health.In the most recent survey conducted by UNICEF and partners that reached around 7,000 households in seven countries, covering nearly 13,000 children, over half of the respondents say that their children have been struggling mentally and emotionally. Moreover, half of the respondents stated that their children are deprived of outdoor play and social interaction, and as a result, experience anxiety, boredom, and stress. It is becoming increasingly essential to repurpose and repackage mental health and psychosocial support to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially on children in conflict-stricken countries.  Since the the onset of the pandemic, UNICEF reached through psychosocial support and mental health services nearly 315,000 children, parents, and primary caregivers. To read the interview and other articles and reports, please click on the following link